This is quite surreal.
Thirty or so kilometres north of here whole suburbs are underwater, as are universities and industrial estates full of all sorts of plants including some of the most high-tech digital manufacturers on the planet. And yet none of that technology and know-how has prevented billions of litres of water stripping the lives away from at least 3 million people and destroying some 600,000 homes in the provinces above and to the side of the gigantic urban sprawl that is Bangkok.
Further south, in the still dry inner city (a huge area itself, some 1500 square kilometres) its 9 million inhabitants (the metropolitan area is 15 million — not all that is flooded by any means, with estimates ranging from 5 to 15% awash as of today) wait to see if or when the boom is going to drop.
I’ve not lived in a city under siege before.
That said, in the past five years we’ve been through several earthquakes, a volcano erupting, a typhoon, two terrorist bombings, a city aflame with open urban warfare and now a cataclysmic flood.
How many lives do I have left?
Of course, in this case, I have no real right to even think such things. I’m privileged. Hundreds of thousands are homeless, out of a job — at least temporarily — or have lost family.
And there are, perhaps, hundreds of farmed crocs loose in the waters just to add to the misery and threat. Nobody really knows how many. One is too many.
And then there are snakes.
In the dry bits of Bangkok (so far — as I write the heavens have just exploded with thunder and lightning and torrents are now coming down) the unrealness of this all is quite fazing. But at least we are dry, or as dry as we often are.
Trying to get my head around at least a small part of this, I went for a couple of extended walks around the central city earlier in the week — around the malls, down to the river, and — mistakenly — through the sleaze pit area around Soi Nana, a place I’ve, to now, completely avoided in the years I’ve been here.
I wish I hadn’t gone — to Nana that is — as the horrible old men with their newly acquired 118-year-old’girlfriends’ were expressing their mutually advantageous but dispirit attractions — true love — everywhere, oblivious I guess to anything beyond the coming moments.
I imagine when you’ve reached a place where you see nothing wrong with taking some young country girl a quarter or more your age, doing it primarily for the bucks, back to meet your kids as their new ‘mother’, then your world is pretty odd anyway. It makes me barf.
Down by the Sathorn Central pier which I’ve used countless times, the river was high — so high it completely covered the normally exposed bridge supports and was noticeably vicious. Only the tourists were foolishly waiting for the clearly almost impossible to manoeuvre cross-river ferries which seemed to be trusting prayers and luck to make it across.
There was water on the footpath and sandbags. It had recently flooded.
At the interesection of Ratchaprasong and Rama 1 — which only 15 months earlier had seen pitched battles and department stores aflame — luxury goods stores already had sandbags, and workers building these higher as I watched.
The proximity of the crucial San Saep Canal, which feeds directly into the Chao Praya (and rather unfortunately flows some 500 metres from our front door too), was obviously something that weighed, as was the recent recovery and re-openings from the damage of 2010.
Across the canal, outside the twin multi-story fashion Platinum fashion malls and the IT floors of Plantip Plaza it seemed as tourist busy as ever. There were hustlers, taxis, tuk-tuks and shoppers everywhere, stepping over and making some use of the omni-present sandbags.
Miss Canon Camera — on stage as part of the Digital Camera Expo 2011 — chose me to sing a song to — trying to insist I join her on her plastic be-flowered podium behind the table with the white plastic bunny on it.
I demurred and stepped outside again, ignoring her fading pleas…
I watched a classic Krung Thep scam taking place.
I tried to warn her from a distance — with loud hand gestures — but she was disinterested in what must have looked like some bizarre farang waving very oddly. Instead, she opted to take the advice being given by the well dressed man — sketching directions on her map as is the way — and was last seen heading off into Pratunum’s mazed alleys in a tuk-tuk.
I briefly wondered what that would cost her but let it go — I tried, and it happens daily after all, water or no water.
Back over the bridge, outside Central World and Isetan it was even more surreal. I wandered unprepared into thousands of well-heeled Bangkokians celebrating what was being called the Bangkok Fun Fest — joyously hosted by a radio station.
There were celebrities everywhere — being chased by camera crews and autograph hunters — and a female singer who, if the screams provided a rough indicator, was a huge pop star.
Every time she spoke between songs her voice was drowned in the wails, and kids looked suitably distraught as she flashed across the big screens.
Twenty or so kilometres north of the Bangkok Fun Fest, people — families and children included — were scrambling to save their worlds and their lives. Nowhere in the Central World festivities did I see a collection or donation facility.
Maybe I missed it. I hope so.
Nor did I see any indication or awareness of irony as the rich kids of the city took photos of each other on their iPads and Tabs and consumed the many flavours of gelato and bountiful designer foods on offer. 1
A couple of days later we were taking off on our long scheduled few days to Hanoi.
Flying north east out of Suvarmabhumi you see the vast blue spread of water blanketing almost endlessly the bordering provinces, with towns, cities, commerce, universities & schools, their massive industrial parks (wanna buy a new Toyota in the USA — you may have to wait) and rice crops (these floods have knocked just under 10% of this year’s annual global rice trade for six, trashing 1.6 million hectares of fertile productive land).
All the satellite imagery, Google and Nostra maps in the world can’t prepare you for this.
It went on for at least 15 minutes more or less like this. There are people down there.….
Seven days later, the city has sobered noticeably. The traffic is sparse, the footpaths empty and many smaller businesses are securely boarded up. The rich kids have likely fled, leaving the city in droves with their parents — down to the holiday home in Hua Hin or Pattaya; the corporates and the embassies have also jumped ship as the waters supposedly rush in.
Except they haven’t. Yet.
And the word increasingly and cautiously out there is that much of Bangkok may have dodged the bullet — at least the parts beyond the sodden fringes. And even there the parts underwater are less than universal. This is a town, as vast and sprawling as it is 2, where 30cm of water in a street — what would considered a flood most elsewhere — is a weekly event in many parts during the wet season.
Jumping ship ‑especially for those whom such flooding is little more than an inconvenience (and lets face it, living on the third floor of a condo or higher it’s going to be little more than that unless you have kids and/or elderly to think of) — and leaving those who simply can’t leave to face the worst of it somehow seems wrong.
Brigid and I, in Hanoi yesterday, talked the pros and cons over before deciding on our return today. It is home after all.
Somehow it seemed like the right thing to do.
- Which may be a little unfair as many people have been extraordinarily active and generous with both their time and their money. ↩
- I was bought up with the myth that Auckland was the world’s biggest city in land area — nonesense: countless urban behemoths dwarf it. Bangkok alone is almost twice the size of my hometown, and that’s just the extended city, not the greater urban region. ↩